Mental health issues are a major contributing factor. The American Psychological Association reports one-third of returning Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom service members reported symptoms of mental health or cognitive problems, led by Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). These conditions, along with depression, are so common they’re often known as the “signature wounds” of this veteran group, something Brooks knows well.
Mikel Brooks always wanted to be in the military. At 17, he convinced his mother to sign papers allowing him to enlist early in the United States Army.
“It’s all I ever wanted to do,” said the stocky veteran from Bald Knob, Arkansas. “I graduated infantry school in 2001; a month later September 11 happened.”
What followed were adventures that exceeded his wildest dreams of being in uniform. Two tours sent him to Egypt on the Sinai Peninsula by the Israeli border, then as part of the invasion of Iraq. He was sent to the black-water aftermath of Hurricane Katrina where he stood on the Super Dome and helped evacuate people from the overloaded Convention Center.
Along the way, he was wounded in combat and decorated for his valor. He came home for good in 2009 with a Purple Heart and a churning painkiller addiction. Eight years later, homeless and addicted, he attempted suicide by heroin overdose on the floor of an abandoned house he’d frequently use to get high.
No one was more surprised than he was when he woke up, especially because he came back with a clear sense of purpose he hadn’t had since his days as a soldier.
“I knew there were plenty more vets like me,” said Brooks, who launched We Are The 22, a suicide intervention organization for veterans. “I began asking, ‘Why are we not doing more? Why can’t we do more? What’s stopping us from doing more?’”
Suicide among America’s heroes is a national health tragedy that’s getting worse. The Military Times reported in November 2020 that despite increased public attention and funding, almost 6,500 veterans died by suicide in 2018, more than 17 a day. The veteran suicide rate was roughly 27.5 per 100,000 individuals (and has been as high as 39/100,000) compared to the overall U.S. population’s rate of 18.3.
“I struggled when I got out,” he said. “I felt like I had lost everything that made me who I am. Like, my uniform was my own image of myself and when they took that, it threw me into a pretty deep depression. That’s when I began abusing the opiates.”
Complicating the problem are the roadblocks many veterans experience when trying to get help. A report in the International Journal of Mental Health Systems found as recently as 2017, services available to the civilian population weren’t always provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs due to lack of qualified staffing and an overall lack of support for addressing mental health issues. This left many veterans on their own to find help through private sources which many can’t afford on their own or can’t hold a job to qualify for employee benefits.
Fortunately, that situation is changing. The VA now offers a full range of mental health services, available by phone or online, to start the process of getting veterans the help they need. There’s even an option for reaching a fellow veteran, which, as Brooks points out, is particularly helpful for veterans in crisis. It’s something he’s seen firsthand through We Are The 22.
“We say, ‘Hey, man, we get it. We understand,’” he said. “And when they tell us that we don’t, we can point to the scars on our own bodies from our own attempts and our own struggles and we say, ‘Yeah, we get it, brother. We’ve been there.’”
To get help now, contact the VA’s Veterans Crisis Line 24/7 by calling 800-273-8255, then select 1; by texting 838255 or by visiting their website here to start a confidential chat.